Anyone for gulli-danda?

Tariq Ali

The cricket matches I grew up with in the Indian subcontinent during the Forties and Fifties lasted five days. The players were dressed in immaculate white or off-white flannels, the ball was dark red and the spectators were well-dressed and sedate. It was no different in the West Indies: English cricket was everywhere the model. Our heroes were the great English batsmen and bowlers of the time. There were great Australians, too, but, we joked, they were only Englishmen twice removed – once from prison and once from England.

I always envied the apparently carefree life of the street children who played cricket the whole day long during the idyllic winter months from November till March. One year, when my parents were abroad, I bunked off school for a week to play with the street teams. It was bliss, even though I wasn’t very good and knew the only reason I had been allowed to play was that I had a new cricket ball – then, as now, a rare luxury.

When the street kids weren’t playing cricket, they played a game known as gulli-danda, using branches hacked off roadside trees or stray pieces of wood discarded by the shopkeepers. The gulli is a small wooden stake with pointed ends. When you lay it flat, the pointed ends rise slightly above the ground. The danda is a medium-sized stick with which you hit one end of the stake so that it jumps up in the air. As it comes down to about shoulder-level, you strike it really hard with the stick to make it go as far as possible. This isn’t as easy as it sounds: timing and eye-hand co-ordination are critical and you need a lot of practice to become an expert player. As they approached their teens, the more gifted gulli-danda players graduated effortlessly to cricket.

They shone in the matches between rival street-teams, usually played on dusty patches of earth and to a fixed over limit, though the teams were always bowled out before the overs were up. A number of these street cricketers could have gone far, but in the newly independent subcontinent the colonial mode persisted as much in cricket as in the officers’ mess and the gymkhana clubs, where civil servants gathered every evening for scotch and political gossip, just as the British had done.

In the first decades after Independence, cricket became more popular, but without any change in its character. Old habits were not easily displaced and at the top level the game remained polite, dominated by the middle and upper classes who still deferred to English ways. Ordinary people were confined to playing in the streets and shouting bawdy comments from the stands during a Test Match. In the lunch interval of the first Tests in Pakistan, there was a display by military bands. The sight of young, hairy-legged Punjabis and Pathans dressed in kilts and playing bagpipes greatly amused English journalists, though we took them for granted. Even now the sound of bagpipes reminds me of the first cricket matches I watched from the Victorian pavilion in the lush green field of the Lawrence Gardens (now the Jinnah Gardens), where Majid Khan’s father (and Imran Khan’s uncle), the stern-faced Dr Jehangir Khan, used to open the innings, and where, in a crucial Test Match between India and Pakistan in the Fifties, our most exciting batsman, Maqsood, was dismissed one run short of his century. I also remember the nostalgia when the Indian team arrived in Lahore. For my parents’ generation, it was a small, temporary, reversal of the ethnic cleansing that had accompanied Partition. In those days the Indian team was greeted warmly by the crowd.

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[*] Hell for Leather by Robert Winder (Indigo, 256 pp., £7.99, 15 May, 0 575 40092 7).